On the eve of what would have been Ahmed Kathrada’s 88th birthday, Derek Hanekom reflects on Kathrada’s remarkable ability to ‘draw people in’…
In Ahmed Kathrada’s Memoirs, Edwin Markham is quoted: “He drew a circle to shut me out – heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: we drew a circle that took him in.”
Kathrada was referring to the harsh manner in which warders would treat Robben Island prisoners, and the way prisoners would in turn, try to “humanise” their jailers.
He would often speak about how political prisoners had eventually struck up friendships with some of the warders. Those who visited Robben Island with Kathrada, after his release, would marvel at the easy-going discussions he would have with former warder, Christo Brand, who now runs the Island shop.
Perhaps it was from the long years of attempting to humanise those at the forefront of implementing apartheid; or perhaps it was just his nature, Kathrada has always had the remarkable ability to ‘draw people in’.
Today, a day before what would have been Kathrada’s 88th birthday, his Foundation is opening a site of remembrance at his grave at the Westpark cemetery in Johannesburg.
The remembrance site is the exact size of a Robben Island cell. Its low walls hold a set of ‘prison bars’, capturing the 26 years he spent in jail for his stance against the apartheid regime. However, where the ‘doorway’ is situated, is simply an open space, symbolising freedom. The design not only captures Kathrada’s love for the Island, but also how what was once a prison, has become a symbol of the ‘triumph of the human spirit’.
For me though, the design also reflects Kathrada’s ability to ‘draw people in’, despite the diversity of their views. The open doorway almost welcomes one in, coaxing the visitor to take a seat atop the surrounding wall and reflect on the life and values of the simple, yet extraordinary human being, who lies at its centre.
Just listening to the youth who spoke at Kathrada’s funeral and memorial services gives one an appreciation of how this much revered elderly leader, had drawn in and impacted on the lives of emerging young voices. At a time when many were highly critical of the Fees Must Fall Movement, Kathrada took it upon himself to listen to students, even though he did not always agree with them.
For youth who were part of the Foundation’s leadership programme, ‘Uncle Kathy’ would not only readily agree to a ‘selfie’, but would also take the time to participate in their discussions and share his anecdotes. Today, these young people continue holding him in high esteem, and look towards his example for leadership.
Kathrada, recipient of Isitwalandwe, the highest honour awarded by the ANC, also felt it was important to engage with leaders of opposition parties including Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane. He had wanted to take them on a visit to Robben Island. He felt it necessary to draw them into understanding the depth of the South African liberation struggle. He lived the aims and objectives of his Movement, the African National Congress: “To unite all the people of South Africa, Africans in particular, for the complete liberation of the country from all forms of discrimination and national oppression.”
Katharada’s book, Triumph of the Human Spirit, is a collection of stories from comrades and friends, relatives, celebrities, academics, royalty, politicians and youth who travelled to the Island with him, and who were all drawn in, by both his warmth, and his vivid recollections of the past.
Perhaps though, it is Kathrada’s diaries, that best reflect his ability to draw in people. Over the years, a cursory glance at the pages would reveal a variety of meetings with people from across the globe – from primary school children who had read about him, to activists fighting for one cause or another. Kathrada was not only a revolutionary because he spoke on public platforms, but because he took the time to share his humanity with anyone he met.
Kathrada’s ability to draw in and inspire people has also manifested itself in the work of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. The Foundation has succeeded over the years, in drawing in a range of dedicated volunteers and activists who endeavour to continue his legacy.
The Foundation continues to draw together various entities and organisations around common values and principles such as non-racialism, Constitutionalism and accountable governance.
Today, as people gather at Kathrada’s gravesite to reflect on his life, we will once again be reminded that his memory remains powerful enough to continue drawing individuals together towards the ideals that he stood for.
*Derek Hanekom is the Chairperson of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.
This piece was first published by the Sunday Times.